Christmas shoppers and revellers have called on the authorities to provide better transport links and cheaper parking in Belfast city centre over the festive period.
With the annual shopping frenzy now in full swing, and with Christmas parties taking place in the city every night, traders, restaurateurs and hoteliers will be competing for a share in the pre-Christmas spending spree.
But is enough being done to ensure shoppers and party-goers are able to easily avail of the wealth of shops, bars and eateries the city has to offer?
This Christmas, Belfast City Council decided to scrap the free parking scheme at its sites in a bid to ease congestion and encourage people to use public transport as an alternative to driving.
But one shopper told the News Letter she was put off by the “expensive parking”, combined with what she described as “overcrowded and inflexible” public transport.
Lyn Kernohan from Larne visited Belfast last Sunday to do some Christmas shopping and have a few drinks afterwards, having pre-booked a night in a city centre hotel.
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She added: “We decided to stay overnight because the last bus back to Larne leaves at 10pm and the last train is at 11.20pm, which doesn’t give you much time to enjoy yourself if you want to stay out late. Plus, the buses and trains are always packed at this time of year.
“I parked overnight in one of the main shopping centres, as I have done numerous times before. It is usually £8, but I was horrified to discover it had cost me £32.50.
“The car parking actually cost me more than the hotel. I think it is outrageous and absolutely extortionate, and it doesn’t exactly encourage people to go shopping in Belfast.
“Some private car parks have obviously hiked up their prices for Christmas. Things like this are anti-shopper and will put people off coming into Belfast.”
With the free parking scheme no longer in operation, Belfast City Council has sought to take other measures to support shoppers and increase footfall into the city.
These include extending the opening hours for Smithfield car park to cover the Christmas late night shopping period, with the set tariff applying. All other car parks, including Bankmore Street, are also available for use at all times.
Meanwhile, in a bid to further boost Christmas trade, the Department of Infrastructure has suspended roadworks on key routes into Belfast city centre until January 3.
Roads Minister Chris Hazzard said: “I am keen to do what I can to support local businesses and provide shoppers with a range of public transport options that meet their needs, while keeping the traffic moving.
“Jointly, my department, Translink and Belfast City Council, have developed a range of transport incentives to manage traffic flow, including extending park and ride opening hours, reduced fares and the works embargo.
“I also would like to welcome the council’s decision to maintain car parking charges at the current level and I believe combined, all of these measures will help ensure smoother traffic flow around the city and a better experience for traders and shoppers alike.
“This is a real example of an integrated approach which will help to improve journey times and increase the use of public transport.”